Features from Meantime IT

E-commerce special – the basics explained

Enhance your business with internet retailing
In the age of the internet, everyone’s a publisher. Anyone with a laptop and internet connection can set up a blog with the potential to reach millions of people, but despite the availability of the medium, the majority of the blogs in cyberspace will go unnoticed. Unless the blogger is able to provide content that the big sites don’t have access to, or has a unique flair or style of writing that can’t be found elsewhere, they won’t be enticing visitors away from the BBC’s or Guardian’s websites.

And this is exactly the same for internet retailing. The facilities are available, should we choose to use them, to set up an online shop within an hour armed only with a camera, a product for sale and a PayPal account. But just because the basic facilities are there, it doesn’t mean they’ll work.

Let’s take a bookshop, for example. If I were to open a high-street shop selling books, I wouldn’t do it in a run-down unit with peeling paint right next to glossy, enticing WHSmiths; it would be business suicide. Yet on the internet, where everyone’s next door to the corporate giants, people frequently extend minimum effort, minimum costs, compete with the likes of Amazon and expect customers not only to find them, but also to buy from them.

Take the right approach

In order to be successful at e-commerce, you have to approach it in the same way as you would a high-street shop. If you were to open a boutique selling high-end women’s fashion, you wouldn’t turn up on the first day, set up for spring and never change your display for summer, winter or autumn. You wouldn’t leave your shop without sales staff or a manager, and you certainly wouldn’t expect to open your shop without paying for premises, decor, utilities, business rates and the plethora of other costs associated with a retail outlet.

Internet retailing is no different. In order to be taken seriously and, ultimately, make the sales you need to survive and profit, there are associated costs and processes that must be observed. A website may not need a full-time sales manager, but it will need someone to take charge of it and make sure it’s working, updated frequently and remains relevant – fundamental issues that a surprising amount of people overlook.

Any retailer worth their salt knows the tricks and procedures used to persuade people to buy goods they didn’t even know they wanted. If you go to a supermarket, next to the till you’ll have chocolate bars and small purchase items that you hadn’t figured on your shopping list, but still end up in the basket. In a clothes shop, outfits are put together to show how well items of clothing work with the handbag and the shoes. Best selling products are at the back of the shop so people have to negotiate their way to them whilst taking in all the other stock, instead of being able to pop their head around the door, grab the item and leave without seeing anything else.

Utilise your data

Best practice in e-commerce is no different. It’s essential that the data available to you – who’s buying what, how many, at what time, what they’re buying with it – is used to constantly update the look of your website and help determine its functionality. The e-commerce equivalents of footfall are page impressions and click-throughs, but having a high number of visitors isn’t beneficial if people leave after the home page because they can’t find the item they want, or just buy the cheapest most popular item because it’s right there at the top of the first page they come to.

Up-sell potential on an e-commerce site is essential. Make people aware of complementary products; if you bought the bag, do you want the shoes? If you’re buying that ingredient, do you need this one? Your e-commerce site is a retail operation so it should be treated exactly the same as a physical shop – entice them in, show them around, make it attractive, make it easy, make it welcoming. Give people a reason to explore further, and then make sure that your navigation is set up to make it as simple as possible to look further.

What’s your USP?

Above all, you need your unique selling point. Amazon’s pretty much got the market covered in books, music and DVDs, so what will make people come to you instead? Do you have an in-depth knowledge of 1930s crime novels? Stick to selling them – don’t attempt to diversify, because the corporate giants have got the pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap angle sewn up. Why would people come to you instead? Because they’re buying your knowledge and expertise in your area. Do you sell clothes aimed at the 20-something female? Why are people going to come to you and not TopShop? It’s unlikely you’ll be able to compete on price without compromising quality, and Primark’s there to cover the low-cost market, so what’ve you got to entice people in? If it’s a talent and passion for styling, make it obvious on your site. Put the outfits together, suggest alternatives; don’t just list reams of tops, skirts and trousers and expect people to see what you see.

Behind the scenes

So that’s the customer-facing side of things, but what’s going on behind the scenes? Just as a retail outlet will have the stockroom out the back or upstairs with people following carefully thought-out processes to ensure the shop remains stocked and attractive, the e-commerce site should have processes that will ensure the smooth running of the business. The shop-owner wouldn’t expect to have his or her way of working determined by the leaseholder, yet internet retailers frequently accept that their operations should be dictated by an off the shelf package or web designer and change the way they work accordingly.

But e-commerce systems should complement your business practices, not hinder them. With an e-commerce solution that’s designed specifically for your business, the whole system is exactly how you want it: invoice generation, warehouse pick lists, reporting tools. These should all link in seamlessly with your other business processes to make the whole operation business better, not harder work.

Keeping up with requirements

There are some business practices that everyone has to follow, though, and whether your e-commerce site is bespoke or off the shelf it must meet certain requirements. PCI compliance legislation is no longer voluntary, it’s law, and merchant banks insist on stringent levels of security for people taking payments over the internet. With that level of security comes constant software updates and if you miss just one, your site will fail the requirements and, ultimately, your bank will pull the plug. Keeping up with the constant stream of updated regulations is almost a full-time job in itself, so ensuring that your site host is PCI compliant removes a huge amount of work for the business owner who wants to concentrate on expanding rather than simply treading water.

Smaller operations may prefer to take payments through a third party provider such as PayPal, SagePay or those offered by major high street banks. Secure certificates and PCI compliance are only compulsory for businesses taking payments on their own websites, but we would strongly recommend that anyone holding sensitive customer information such as delivery addresses and contact details is PCI compliant to ensure no leaks of data.

For the smaller operator, third party payments are an excellent way of ensuring that payment systems match the professional look and feel of the site without the need for designing and maintaining complicated payment systems. The customer will make their order and click to proceed to payment, and when they see a national or international organisation processing their details they’re reassured they’re in safe hands. Larger organisations or a company with a very established brand can still follow this process, but give a more professional impression by embedding the payment functionality within the site, so the customer is not taken anywhere else.

However you choose to process your payment, we would strongly recommend you don’t give customers the option to store their card details for further purchases. Although this may seem like a tempting way to entice customers to spend more money with you, storing card details immediately puts you in the high-risk provider bracket and banks will treat you accordingly, making you subject to much more costly security requirements and stringent checks.

Keep the customer coming back

Finally, it’s essential (by law) that each customer receives confirmation of their order. In the UK and other VAT payable countries this has to show the price broken down to include the VAT payment. This doesn’t necessarily have to be included in the website’s functionality, but whether confirmation is immediate, sent by email or dispatched with the order, it has to be done.

For any business or retailer weighing up the options for e-commerce versus high street, there is no easy ride. Investment into e-commerce should be given as much, if not more, priority than the high-street shop because it’s the one tool that allows you direct access into your customers’ homes. And once there, if you don’t make a good impression, you won’t be invited back.

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